Your project failed. Now what?

There is a right way to fall.
There is a right way to fall.
Image: REUTERS/Matthew Childs
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Failure in the workplace can take many shapes. The budget cycle ended, and your prized initiative was the only one on the chopping block. Or the client called and abruptly cancelled your agency’s long-term contract. Maybe the star employee you recruited into your company turned out to be less than stellar, and you participated in a string of HR discussions culminating in termination. In any of these cases and many more, you experienced a demoralizing, public failure.

First of all, congratulations! If every single one of your projects succeeded, it would mean you were coasting. Failing once in a while is a good sign. While failure can certainly come from inattention or poor decision-making, it often is associated with experimentation and innovation. No one seeks out the sting of a failure and its repercussions, but smart professionals embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and improve.

The first rule of failure is to talk about failure

People often respond to workplace failure as they might respond to personal tragedy. They don’t know what on earth to say, so they avoid discussing it entirely. Make it your mission to address the elephant in the room, by acknowledging the failure and looking to understand underlying causes.

Take a lesson from the software industry, where teams conduct “blameless post-mortems” (BPMs) to identify systemic vulnerabilities in process, technology, and practices in order to learn and improve. These meetings take place shortly after an event, and bring together the relevant people involved. It’s useful to bring in a third party to facilitate the discussion, and to ask questions that reveal:

  • The timeline of events, and a shared understanding of how they unfolded
  • Context for any assessments or judgments that were made
  • Things that people knew (and might have assumed are common knowledge)
  • Team members’ states of mind at the time
  • Mental models for how things “should” work, and how they are shared or differ among team members
  • Factors that led people to take a specific action
  • Signals that caused people to ask for help—or not

From this meeting, identify action items to prevent future, similar failures. These steps might include changes in escalation protocols, involvement of different people in meetings, or more expansive documentation. When conducting blameless post-mortems, speed is essential. A BPM conducted weeks after the event will be short on the vital details and subject to the narrative already constructed about the root of the failure. Effective blameless post mortems will develop teams with high trust that are able to move on from failure by correcting systemic weaknesses rather than turning on one another.

Accept personal responsibility

While project failures may have many different causes, project leadership has ultimate accountability. Examine how your behaviors contributed to the failure. The more tactical of these may have come to light in the blameless post mortem and resulted in changes to your approach. But dig deeper: are there aspects of your leadership that you can improve? Perhaps people fear you will shoot the messenger, or you’ve been too slow to react to warning signals. Ask the project team for feedback on your performance. Try using an approach outlined by Kim Scott in her book Radical Candor: be persistent and reward honesty to obtain meaningful feedback from colleagues.

Share what you have learned to improve processes

We’re all tempted to put our failures behind us. After all, we typically win jobs and promotions based on reciting our resume of successes, not by recounting our failures. However, sharing the practical learnings from a failed project more broadly can be helpful to you as well as to others in your organization. Find the right avenue for sharing: a white paper, a talk, an internal blog post. It’s a useful way to explore and expand your organization’s tolerance for failure, and to illuminate how these stories make their way—or don’t—to the C-Suite.